December 3, 2012

Bill Nemitz: 'Down Memory Lane': The gift that keeps on giving

His career was only a few hours from over.

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MPBN program director Charles Beck, left, enjoys a moment with Toby Leboutillier, holding a microphone, after Friday’s airing of “Down Memory Lane.”

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Toby Leboutillier celebrates with cake after learning the show will go on.

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Toby Leboutillier, 71, arrived at the Maine Public Broadcasting Network's studio in Bangor early Friday afternoon, his canvas bag stuffed with oldies but goodies, fully expecting this would be his last day in front of the microphone that reaches from Kittery to Fort Kent and beyond.

"Down Memory Lane," the one-of-a-kind, weekly smorgasbord of music that stretches back a full century and then dutifully marches, decade by decade, all the way to the 1970s, was about to become, well, history -- replaced by the non-stop talk of the nationally syndicated "Diane Rehm Show."

"I'm not making a big deal out of it," Leboutillier had promised me during an hour-plus telephone chat the day before. "We'll just say, 'It was wonderful and goodbye.' "

Ah, but it was a big deal. In fact, for those of us who for years have welcomed in the weekend with Leboutillier's eclectic, two-hour play lists interspersed with his desert-dry humor, it was the end of an era.

Thirty-three years after his first show, a decade after he stopped accepting a paycheck in part because MPBN had the gall to go from paper time sheets to computerized payroll forms, this quirky slice of Maine life was about to vanish into thin air.

"I'm a complete Luddite," confessed Leboutillier. "I don't have a computer. I don't do the Internet. I don't have a cellphone. All I have is my old reel-to-reel tape recorder, cassette players -- I do have CD's -- record players, and that's it."

And, of course, his records. Thousands of them, meticulously cataloged and arranged by artist in his basement in Brewer -- from Ada Jones and Billy Murray in the 1910s, to Aileen Stanley in the '20s, to Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore in the '40s, to Doris Day and Perry Como in the '50s, to Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys in the '60s -- each waiting week after week, month after month, for Leboutillier to pluck them from their shelf, schlep them over the MPBN's sound booth and, for a few short, occasionally scratchy minutes, resurrect their past glory.

He got his start in broadcasting after coming home to Mount Desert Island from an Army post in Germany in the mid 1960s.

After a few years with commercial television and radio, Leboutillier jumped at a chance to work for what was then the Maine Educational Broadcast Network at the University of Maine in Orono, where he'd earlier earned a degree in physics.

It was a different, less structured time: Back when Leboutillier babysat the live weekly broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the early 1970s, he'd liven up the 20-minute intermissions by dubbing sound effects over the dull roar of the symphony audience.

"One time we did the sound of a monkey," he chortled. "Or we'd cue up smashing glass. We even had the sound of a helicopter going over it one day."

But behind the hijinks was a man who loved his music -- old, new and anywhere in between. A man who, upon discovering the directories of hit records compiled by the legendary music chronicler Joel Whitburn, set about collecting every record on every list going back all the way to the early 20th century.

"The Top 100 Billboard book (from 1955-72) has over 11,000 records in it," noted Leboutillier. "And I found every one except two."

He did it by scouring the attics and storage rooms of old Maine radio stations from Waterville to Presque Isle, by driving hundreds of miles to antique record shows and, after he launched "Down Memory Lane" in 1979, by gratefully accepting the countless donations of old recordings from faithful listeners all over Maine.

The show evolved over the years, eventually expanding from one to two hours and, by the late 1990s, absorbing two other shows Leboutillier produced -- "Oldies But Goodies" and "Wind Up the Victrola, Toby."

Starting in the 1910s, each show moved incrementally forward by decade, interspersed with back-in-the-day news stories that Leboutillier ripped and read off the microfilms down at the Bangor Public Library.

Better yet was his running, deep-baritone commentary that bookended the songs: "That was dreadful! How did that ever get in there?"

Or, "There's Connie Francis crying her way to the bank again."

Or, "Oh God! How many 'wop wop doo wop wops' can we take?"

"It's comfortable if you like the premise of it," Leboutillier said. "I know musically it's quite a swath because you're not likely to get people who like Steppenwolf that also adored Caruso. But you might hear both in the same program."

A guy named Fred heard both -- and loved every minute of it. He worked as a legal assistant down in Boston and, every Friday afternoon, would drive to the Agawam Diner in Topsfield, Mass., to sit in his car and let Leboutillier transport him Down Memory Lane.

Fred eventually came down with incurable cancer and moved back to Connecticut to spend his final months with his parents. But even then, Leboutillier would mail down a cassette recording of each show "so he could listen to it on ear phones."

"His mother later wrote me," recalled Leboutillier. "She said that meant everything to Fred."

And to so many others.

When the news first broke two weeks ago that Friday's show would be Leboutillier's last -- part of MPBN's migration toward a more talk-oriented format -- his loyal fans went into mourning.

Over-the-air listeners couldn't reach him by email (again, the computer phobia), but his mailbox immediately began filling with cards and letters from all over Maine.

Equally distraught were Internet listeners as far away as California, West Virginia and even Germany -- all devastated by the news that the treasure trove of old songs, and the man who played them so religiously, were about to go silent forever.

"I have no control over it -- I've been doing it for nothing for 10 years," said Leboutillier, whose offer to host the show for free was prompted, in addition to those cussed computers, by a financial crisis that included layoffs.

"They've curried to this crowd that likes to listen to breaking news and this endless discussion," he continued. "I mean, I'd go nuts. I never have liked talking radio. Ever!"

How could he? Unlike all those talking heads, Leboutillier is, was and always will be a music man.

Thus as he went through his Thursday afternoon ritual -- check his master lists for the top hits on Nov. 30 over seven consecutive decades, cobble together this week's play list, go downstairs and retrieve the recordings (each gets a run through MPBN's "$800 record-washing machine" before going on the air) -- Leboutillier worried that his final appearance would be "maudlin affair."

"It's no big woops," he told me less-than-convincingly. "I knew it would eventually come to an end. I mean I'm 71!"

But then something totally unexpected happened.

Just before Leboutillier settled into his studio chair on Friday-- the window covered with a sign that read, "Toby has requested that he be left alone today. Please keep out!" -- MPBN programming director Charles Beck pulled him aside.

Would he be willing, asked Beck, to keep doing the show -- same time, same studio -- and have it go out ... brace yourself, Toby ... online?

In a heartbeat, Leboutillier said yes.

"He's discovered the Internet in the last 24 hours, I think," said a pleased and relieved Beck. "It is a viable option."

And so the dreaded "last" show, in the end, wasn't.

And as Leboutillier emerged from the studio with his records, CD's and song directories piled literally up to his chin, MPBN board Chairman Hank Schmelzer, President and CEO Mark Vogelzang and two dozen other employees waited with a cake and an old MPBN microphone from the 1960s -- not to say goodbye, but rather to keep up the good work.

"This is my life," a beaming Leboutillier told his colleagues. "I don't want to be anywhere else, really."

Nor did Leboutillier, the man who blanches at the sight of a laptop, ever dream he'd sign off the way he did on Friday.

Just after he played Hurricane Smith's "Oh Babe, What Would You Say?" Leboutillier reminded his audience that "Down Memory Lane" was not ending after all. It's just, as they say in the digital age, being rerouted.

"So this is not goodbye -- it's just until next week," said Leboutillier. "Crank up those computers!"

And long live the Internet.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

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